This is my instrumental arrangement of the well-known worship song ‘The Power of Your love’, by Geoff Bullock.
The guitar tuning is CGCGCD. I created this instrumental almost accidentally; I’d been leading the song at a Facebook Live streamed worship service (strumming, in standard tuning), but when I got home my other guitar was tuned to open C and I began ‘noodling’ with it. The result was this instrumental. Hope you enjoy it!
One of the weaknesses of our human nature appears to be that we are attracted to easy answers. We want reality to be simple. We want a universe where good deeds are clearly and quickly rewarded, and bad deeds are promptly and obviously punished. We want a life in which the way forward is always clear, and where there’s always a simple solution to every difficulty. We want a world where morality is always reassuringly black and white. We want to be able to avoid the terrifying feeling that we are tiny, helpless beings set in the midst of a dangerous world that seems callously indifferent to our existence.
But the truth is that the world is not simple. The real world, the world we actually live in, is a place where good people die of cancer at a young age, leaving families who spend years processing the pain of their loss. It’s a world where children are kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves. It’s a world where people brought up by good parents in good homes find themselves saddled with mental illnesses that make their lives a constant struggle. It’s a world where a tiny little virus that very few people saw coming can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and disrupt the lives of millions more.
One of Eugene Peterson’s most brilliant books for pastors is called ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ (the ‘five smooth stones’ title is an allusion to the story of David and Goliath, where David takes his sling and selects ‘five smooth stones’ from the brook to kill the giant). In it, Peterson looks at five lesser-known Old Testament books and explores their relevance for the pastoral task. They are the books of ‘Song of Songs’, ‘Ruth’, ‘Lamentations’, ‘Ecclesiastes’. and ‘Esther’. Possibly my favourite chapter is the one on Ecclesiastes; he calls it ‘The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying’.
Yes, nay-saying can be a pastoral task. The quest for easy answers does real damage to people’s souls and people’s relationships, and it can be a legitimate pastoral task to point this out to people. Kate Bowler, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer while in her thirties, writes about this in her brilliant book ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved. ‘Everything happens for reason’ is a cliche people use to protect themselves from the feeling that their lives are spiralling out of control. Well-meaning people think they are bringing comfort to others when they use it, but in fact, they rarely are. When you’re on the receiving end of that particular pat answer, it feels as if your pain is being trivialized or dismissed. The person who tells me “Everything happens for a reason” is not taking my suffering seriously. They find it too hard to just listen to what I have to say, without trying to give me solutions to my problem.
If your prayer life is shaped by the psalms, you know that reality is far from simple. The writers of the psalms love the image of God as ‘a rock of refuge in times of trouble’. In other words, when it seems as if life is a deadly quicksand, they have discovered that the presence of God can be a solid rock, a secure place to stand. But at the same time, they are well aware that God often seems to be absent, or asleep. They complain about how long he’s taking to show up and change things. They ask what they’ve done to deserve what they’re getting. They agonize over the prosperity of the wicked and the sufferings of the innocent.
It seems to me that to live as an adult in this world is to acknowledge both these truths: ‘Life is hard and complex’ and ‘God is my rock’. This has certainly been my experience in the present pandemic. On the one hand, in the past few weeks I’ve experienced the physical symptoms of stress in ways more severe than ever before. On the other hand, I can’t remember a period in my life when I’ve been more aware of the presence of God, especially in our shared times of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook Live.
So yes, I believe in the ‘pastoral work of nay-saying’, and in the next few weeks I want to do a bit of nay-saying on this blog. I want to look at some of these easy answers, these ‘lies we’ve loved’, to use Kate Bowler’s phrase, and explore why, in the long run, they really aren’t very helpful. I haven’t yet decided which of these pat answers to consider first. Will it be ‘everything happens for a reason?’ Or ‘God is in control’? Or ‘God won’t send you more than you can cope with?’ Or ‘God is good, all the time’? Or ‘now I am happy all the day?’ I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned!
We’re all well aware of the hardships people are going through right now, and the restrictions placed on us in the effort to keep as many people as possible safe. But this morning I don’t want to add to the laments; I want to list some of the things I’m thankful for during this challenging time. In no particular order, here they are.
I’m thankful that I don’t live alone—that I live with the woman I love, and she loves me, and we seem to be able to live in the same house without losing patience with each other.
I’m thankful that I’m relatively healthy, able to do my work and enjoy the simple pleasures I love—reading and writing, walking, bird watching, playing and listening to music, and keeping in touch with family and friends online.
I’m thankful that I see my children and grandchildren regularly—either in person with appropriate social distancing), or through the wonders of modern technology—and that they reach out to each other as well. We’re a together kind of family and we still seem to be together through all of this. I can also talk to my Mum in the UK on a regular basis, on FaceTime or on the phone.
And speaking of the wonders of modern technology, right now I’d be sunk without it, so I’m very thankful for it. It enables me to stay in touch with friends far and wide, to see their faces when we chat, and it also enables our St. Margaret’s family to stay together and to carry on with much of our life while we can’t meet physically.
I’m especially thankful that my brother and I are able to chat regularly on FaceTime—something we’ve been able to do for a long time, but somehow haven’t done a lot of until this virus came along. I’m also grateful for the video chats I’ve had with friends in different places around the world, people I’ve been in touch with for a long time but somehow never thought before of talking face to face via video technology.
I’m more thankful than I can possibly express for the group of praying people, from St. Margaret’s and beyond, who have formed around our daily Facebook services of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer. In April an average of 12 each morning and 17 each night have been coming together to pray in this way. I’m grateful for Susan Ormsbee who shares in the leadership of these daily services with me. They are truly the great sheet anchor of my day, keeping me close to God and to fellow Christians.
I’m grateful to all the amazing people in my parish of St. Margaret’s, Edmonton, who appear to have made a collective decision not to let this thing beat us, but to do all we can to be a strong and vibrant community of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. For those who join us in Sunday worship online—for those who have looked after our church building through basement floods—for the grounds team who have now begun their work of keeping the property looking beautiful and loved—for our churchwardens and treasurer and the leadership they provide—for those who have been contacting people on our parish list by phone and computer to make sure everyone is okay and keep our community together—for my amazing admin assistant Lori who goes above and beyond the call of duty again and again and somehow manages to do it all in six hours a week (so she says!!!)—for those who gather for our midweek Bible study groups on Zoom—for other little virtual gatherings that take place—for the incredible generosity of our members (our April envelope offerings were above budget, even though a few people have had to cut back)—for the many people who have sent me thank-you emails for the online services and other things we do—for the very special parishioners who make a point of reaching out to me to make sure I’m doing okay (you know who you are).
I’m also grateful for my clergy colleagues in the Diocese of Edmonton, who inspire me by their willingness to be stretched, to learn new ways of doing things, and to go the second mile, and the third, and the twenty-third—really, to do all they can to continue to lead and care for their parish communities. Sisters and brothers, you are truly awesome. And so are you, Bishop Jane!
I’m grateful for the worldwide music community, for all the people who have been doing online concerts on Facebook to keep in touch with their fans—for being able to sit in my living room last Wednesday and listen to Matthew Byrne, one of my favourite traditional folk singers, coming to us from his living room in Newfoundland—and for the local musicians who have been posting videos of their favourite songs in and effort to reach out and encourage each other.
I’m grateful for good books to read, nourishing books, written by authors with worthwhile things to say. I love reading and I’m so glad I can enjoy it in this difficult time. I’m also grateful for people like Jennifer Ehle, who has been reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ aloud on social media, and Patrick Stewart who has been reading one of Shakespeare’s sonnets every day!
And speaking of social media, yes, Facebook and Twitter have their dark side (and I’ve blocked and un-followed a lot of sites these last few weeks), but I have to say I’ve also experienced a whole lot of love and inspiration from the people I meet there since this pandemic began to change our lives. Thank you all!
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I want to finish by saying that although this has been a stressful time (and I’ve been feeling the symptoms of stress in my body), it’s also been a timer when I’ve been very much aware of God’s presence. The psalms refer to God as ‘our Rock’ in times of trouble, and I am definitely experiencing God like that, especially through our daily Morning Prayer and Night Prayer services. I leave them each day with a sense of being grounded, of deep peace, and of the closeness of God in my heart and the hearts of those I’ve prayed with.
So yes—lots of stress, lots of challenges, lots of sadness, but also many, many things to be thankful for.
I wrote this two years ago on the 40th anniversary of my commissioning, the day I began full time ministry. I think it still stands.
Things I’d like to tell (or remind) my ‘forty years ago’ self.
- God loves you. You can believe that.
- Praying is important .
- Loving is equally important.
- Never rain on someone’s enthusiasm for Jesus .
- This is not about career advancement or comfortable jobs, it’s about sharing the Gospel .
- Decide what’s important and do your best not to get distracted by what’s not important .
- God is real. We forget this sometimes, and then we think we have to do God’s job.
- Grace means there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less, and nothing we can do to make God love us more. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is going to change that (thank you, Philip Yancey).
That’ll do for now.
Over in England, some members of the Church of England are getting themselves tied up in knots. Like us, because of the current pandemic they aren’t allowed to hold public services in their church buildings. Unlike us, their clergy aren’t even allowed to stream Sunday services in the buildings, or go into them to pray the daily offices by themselves. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have forbidden it. They need to stream their services from their vicarages. The Archbishop of Canterbury even streamed one from his kitchen, which seems to have aroused the ire of traditionalists. The controversy has been exhaustively covered at the Thinking Anglicans website, although I must warn you that the comments are not for the fainthearted.
And this has been very controversial. People have written articles on both sides of the subject. A retired bishop has written a piece for ‘The Tablet’ which has gotten a lot of attention (I can’t read it because it’s behind a paywall, but the title of the piece is ‘Is Anglicanism going private?’, so you get the drift). The argument seems to be that churches are public space, open to all, so clergy should be allowed to stream services from them. Vicarages are private space (especially kitchens?), and for some reason it’s not good for services to take place in private space.
Now, I need to start by freely admitting that there are things about the Church of England I will never understand, despite the fact that I grew up in it. The whole idea of an established state church is repugnant to my theology of the Church as a fellowship of resident aliens (we read 1 Peter at the Daily Office last week; you’ll find it all spelled out there). And the fact that the early church got along for a couple of centuries without any church buildings seems to sit rather strangely with the idea that church buildings are now somehow essential to the public mission of the church. What public mission would that be? The mission Jesus gave his church was to make new disciples for him. The early (pre-church building) church did that spectacularly well. The modern church, not so much.
Be that as it may, there are three comments I wish to make.
First, it is alleged that churches are public space, appropriate for public worship, while vicarages are not; they are private homes. I find myself wondering how many of the people who make this claim actually grew up in vicarages. I did. My dad was ordained in his thirties, and from then on I lived in church housing. I can assure you, vicarages are not private space. The Parochial Church Council met in the living room once a month. Bible study groups (then known as ‘home meetings’) met there regularly. My parents entertained parishioners frequently, either individually or in groups. Our garden was used for vicarage garden parties. As a teenager, I was starved for private space. I felt like I was living in a goldfish bowl, on public display, which for an introvert like me was very hard. So I don’t buy this nonsense about vicarages being more private than churches. They aren’t.
Furthermore (and this is the second point), whatever the intrinsic nature of these houses may be, streaming public services from them makes them public. Here in Canada our experience is less extreme than in the Church of England (at least in my diocese). I have not been forbidden to stream Sunday services from the church, and so I do it. But I also stream daily services of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer from my house, from the little room I’m currently using as a study (because I’ve been told to work from home as much as possible during the pandemic). As a result, many people now know what the inside of my house looks like. This is a big change, because I live in my own house, not a vicarage/rectory. My study at home is now public space.
And funnily enough, no one has complained about that. We do the daily offices in a relaxed kind of way, and that seems to fit well with the relaxed feeling of my study. I would even argue that it’s a better fit for streamed services. They’re different from public services in church. In church, people relate to the worship leader as members of a crowd, but when they participate in a live streamed service, although the leader might experience it as a group event, the participants do not: they only see the leader (and any others who may be assisting him or her). In other words, it’s more like listening to talk radio; you feel like the host is talking directly to you, not to the other two hundred thousand people who are listening in. And the most successful talk radio hosts (I think of the late Peter Gzowski, for example) know how to use this personal and informal aspect of the medium to best advantage. I think we would do well to think about the implications for live streamed services, especially in smaller churches.
Thirdly, I would like to contest the point that services in church are open and welcoming to all, whereas services live streamed from the vicarage are somehow more ‘gated’, more private. There are huge swathes of the population for whom this is simply not true.
Let’s take the disabled population. People who are hard of hearing often find church frustrating (I have a constant struggle to get my lay readers to use our microphones; they protest that their voices are loud enough, despite the complaints we get from some of our more elderly members.). Blind people struggle to find a place in services that rely totally on people’s ability to read. People in wheelchairs frequently find churches inaccessible. People who struggle with mental illnesses find the constant expectation of cheerfulness brutally exclusive.
But what about the folks who have never darkened the doors of a church? I’m an evangelist and I make it my business to listen carefully to my non-Christian friends. I’ve been told several times how emotionally difficult it is for some of them to make it through the door of a church. They have absolutely no idea what they will encounter on the other side. And I’m not even going to begin to talk about the abysmal job many churches do of making first-time attenders feel welcomed and included in the worship. Church buildings an open and welcoming space? In many cases, that’s a delusion only long-time church goers could believe in.
The truth is, whether or not churches are public space, they are certainly religious space, and I think this is what really lies behind a lot of the objections to the archbishops’ policy in England. People like the experience of Christianity as a religion. And what are the characteristics of religions? They differentiate between the sacred and the non-sacred. They have sacred places where you go to meet God, and non-sacred places where you work and play and rest; the two are clearly distinguished from each other. And religions have sacred and non-sacred people. Priests are holy and special; they relate to God on our behalf, Ordinary people don’t expect to have the same familiarity with God’s presence.
In the New Testament, Christianity was not a religion. It had no professional priesthood; in fact, it saw itself in totality as a royal priesthood to which all its members belonged (see 1 Peter again). Ministry was shared by all Christians under the direction of elders who were far more like a combination of lay readers and vestry members than a professional priesthood. And Christianity had no sacred spaces; the early Christians met in homes in small groups, and did their evangelizing in public spaces like Mars Hill, and the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
In later centuries, of course, Christianity became far more like a standard religion, with a professional priesthood and church buildings (referred to as ‘houses of God’). People are so used to this way of operating that they barely notice how foreign it is to the ethos of the New Testament. And when an aspect of it is threatened (as it is in the Church of England right now with the closing off of ‘sacred space’), they get very defensive.
I have two suggestions.
First, we need to see the current crisis as an opportunity, not a threat. In recent days a survey in England has shown that, although only about 6% of the population attends church on Sundays, around 25% have tuned in to a live streamed service since the pandemic began. Speaking personally, for years I have said Daily Morning and Evening Prayer alone in church. Now I say them in my home and stream them on Facebook, and I rarely have less than fifteen people joining me. A couple of them are people I thought had drifted away from our church. This is just one example of the new opportunities that present themselves. The world is changing, and the call of the Church is always to find fresh ways of sharing the Gospel message in new circumstances.
Secondly, we all need to calm down. This week Marcus Green has written eloquently about this. Clergy and lay people are all under unique stress right now. People are getting sick and dying, seeing their loved ones die alone in long term care facilities, losing their jobs and livelihoods, seeing their academic year evaporating before their eyes. Many of us are having trouble sleeping at night. Many more are having trouble making ends meet.
Is this the time for Christians to be sniping at each other about something as unimportant as whether or not we are allowed to stream services from the church? Surely what we need to be doing right now is being gentle and patient with each other, encouraging and supporting each other, not arguing about unimportant matters.
“But it’s not unimportant!” people will say. “It’s about the worship of God; how can it be unimportant?”
It’s unimportant, because Jesus and the authors of the New Testament apparently had no opinion on the matter. Or wait; maybe they did! Jesus was once asked about it by a woman of Samaria. She pointed out that her Samaritan ancestors had taught that God was to be worshipped on the mountain near Samaria, but the Jewish people (represented, in her view, by Jesus) asserted that the proper place for worship was Jerusalem.
‘Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”‘ (John 4.21, 23-26).
The location of worship is of no importance. God has no opinion on that matter. What is important is that the true worshippers worship God “in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such to worship him.” And notice where this conversation was taking place? Not in a Temple or church building. Not in a vicarage or private home. It was taking place at the town well, the most public space in the community.
Where are the town wells in our communities? Where are the real public spaces, the spaces where people congregate? Bars and coffee shops? Post offices? Public parks? Definitely, but I would suggest that in a time of Coronavirus, cyberspace is one of the most outstanding public spaces. And if we want to engage in the conversations that will lead people to Christ, we could do worse than to follow the example of Jesus and go into those spaces to meet them. What matters isn’t whether we ‘go’ to the town well from the church or the vicarage or rectory. What matters is what we do at the wellside when we get there. And that, I would suggest, is a conversation actually worth having.
Note: this is the seventh in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, from thirteen years ago. This post was originally posted on May 2nd 2007.
This ‘Anabaptist Anglican’ blog has been heavily tilted toward the ‘Anabaptist’ side lately, so I want to pause for a moment to tip the hat to a very fine resource I’ve discovered on the Anglican side of my spiritual pedigree – from the Church of England, no less!
Most people I know who pray the Daily Office – daily Morning and Evening Prayer, that is, using one of our service books such as the Book of Common Prayer or the Book of Alternative Services – will admit to having a love/hate relationship with it. Sometimes we find that the structure strengthens our ability to pray through dry periods; at other times we find it inhibiting of true encounter with the living God who can’t be captured between the pages of any book. Sometimes we find having a book with lots of alternatives helps us avoid monotony; at other times it just makes prayer times confusing (it’s so much effort just to look up those darn canticles and responsories!).
The Church of England has recently produced a daily office book called ‘Common Worship: Daily Prayer’ which has literally hundreds of pages of texts for daily prayer. This, however, is not the resource I’m recommending. I have just discovered a little extract from that book, called ‘Time to Pray’. It includes two specific resources:
- ‘Prayer During the Day’, an outline for a daily ‘quiet time’, with a few liturgical texts to bring focus and a lot of freedom for experimentation (you’ll find an online example here). There are outlines for ‘Prayer during the Day’ for every day of the week, plus special outlines for the seasons (Christmas, Easter etc). I find there’s enough structure to give my prayers shape, but not so much that I feel constricted. For instance, no lectionary (i.e system of daily Bible readings) is given in the book; people are encouraged to find a system of Bible reading that they like and to use it in combination with ‘Prayer During the Day’ (some suggestions are made in the introduction).
- ‘Night Prayer’, which is the Church of England’s contemporary version of the ‘Compline’ service, traditionally offered in monasteries last thing at night. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t like Compline, and this modern version of it keeps all the features we’ve come to love over the years, but updates the language and structure a bit.
Morning and Evening Prayer can be ‘ho hum’ sometimes, but so far for me ‘Prayer During the Day’ and ‘Night Prayer’ have been spot on. I hope that the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto gets some copies of this little book very soon, and makes them widely available in Canada. I think this book could do a lot to help people who are struggling with the discipline of daily prayer.
For the last couple of days I’ve had some late nights because I’ve been rewatching the ‘Hunger Games’ movies on Netflix (I’ve also read the books). I know, it seems a dark and depressing way to end the day, but I find them riveting. In fact, if I wanted to lead a young adult study group on the Christian doctrine of original sin, I think I’d start with ‘The Hunger Games’.
I can hear the objections. ‘Can you really imagine a whole society being so twisted that it enjoys the spectacle of teenagers—and some barely into their teens—killing each other in a virtual arena?’ Well, as it happens, I can. I recall a time in human history when gladiatorial contests were entertainment—the more blood, the better. I also recall a time when young children were sent up chimneys as sweeps, and many died when they got stuck up there. As a human race we’ve dropped bombs on children, sold them as sex slaves, kidnapped them and turned them into child soldiers. We’re not quite the enlightened race we like to think we are.
‘But a nation set up in such a way that a wealthy capital sucks in all the resources and enjoys the lifestyle they make possible, while keeping the regions that produce the resources in poverty and subjugation? Surely we wouldn’t do that?’ But that was the whole point of colonies, wasn’t it? Places that the developed nations could exploit for their resources, while keeping the natives under their thumb. People living in the two-thirds world tell us it’s still going on today.
‘But can you imagine people standing up in front of a microphone and telling out and out blatant lies like that?’ Um – funnily enough, in 2020, I can! Enough said about that!
‘But those ridiculous costumes and hairstyles! All that flashy extravagance and love of spectacle! Isn’t it all a bit over the top?’ Maybe, but is it really so very much different from a modern political convention—or the Grammy Awards?
‘But children standing up on stage talking about how they can’t wait to get out into the arena and fight for the honour of their district?’ Well, that sounds rather like what a lot of soldiers said when they marched off to fight in World War One. And some of them weren’t much older than the kids in the Hunger Games.
So yes—I think ‘The Hunger Games’ tells us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Christians believe human beings are made in God’s image, but are also infected with the disease of sin. And what is sin? It’s what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to F___ Things Up.’ We’re really good at it. We break things. We break people. We break relationships. We know it. We try to change it, but it’s desperately hard to break old habits and find a new path.
And ‘The Hunger Games’ reminds us that it’s not just about individual choices. Whole societies are organized in such a way as to institutionalize evil, to reinforce it, so that if you want to step away from it, you have to be intentional about it and be ready to suffer the consequences. As Cinna did. As Katniss and Peeta did.
A gloomy way to start a Friday morning? Maybe. I also believe God has come among us as one of us and started a movement to root out the poison of evil from our souls and our societal structures. But I don’t expect that to be the work of a few minutes, and I don’t expect it to be completed in a single lifetime.
As so often, Bruce Cockburn sums it up well:
From the lying mirror to the movement of stars
Everybody’s looking for who they are
Those who know don’t have the words to tell
And the ones with the words don’t know too well
Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That’s the burden of the angel/beast
Birds of paradise — birds of prey
Here tomorrow, gone today
Cross my forehead, cross my palm
Don’t cross me or I’ll do you harm
We go crying, we come laughing
Never understand the time we’re passing
Kill for money, die for love
Whatever was God thinking of?
– ‘The Burden on the Angel/Beast’ (from the Album ‘Dart to the Heart’ )